Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Black Hole

Today I shall talk about The Black Hole.

When The Black Hole was released in 1979 it was the first film to have an entirely digitally composed film score, ( Some folk think that the first film to have an entirely digitally composed film score was Star Trek the Motion Picture but they're wrong ), the fillum's opening credits sequence featured the longest computer graphics shot that had ever appeared in a fillum, it was the first proper Disney film to have a PG rating, and , at the time, it was the most expensive film Disney had ever made ( $20 million ,plus another $6 million for its advertising budget).

In other words, it was a big deal.

And a big disappointment.

It never performed anywhere near as well as Star Wars had done (it made 36 million, Star Wars cost about half as much to make and pulled in 200 million in its first year) and it doesn't have a huge cult-following, in fact it is very much maligned, it's 'Rotten Tomatoes' rating is currently 42%.

I watched it recently because I was curious:
when I saw it last I was a kid and I didn't actually remember much about it, ( other than it wasn't half as good as
Star Wars, ) but I did like B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT. Although nobody could have forseen, in 1979, that V.I.N.CENT. in the year 2011 would be a dead ringer for Eric Cartman :

So, The Black Hole : where shall I begin?

For me, the most remarkable thing about The Black Hole watching it now, is believing that it came out after Mr Lucas's Opus. It just looks about a decade older. The combination of visible wires and eccentric choreography ( intended to make the crew seem weightless ) may have been inspired by Stanley Kubrick, but unlike his work, it wouldn't convince an eight-year old. The overweight Ernest Borgnine's effort at miming weightlessness is so poor at times that it's even kind of sad.

The story is a strange mix of other things done better elsewhere: gothic horror (Dracula), action sci-fi(Starwars), and philosophical sci-fi ( a la 2001) and the film's attempt to be each of these disparate genres simultaneously prevents it from being an enjoyable attempt at either horror/action/philosophy which is a pity because whatever else I could say about it, a lot of work went into this film, and it could have been a good version of any one of those kinds of stories.

Which is not to say that it isn't an interesting film. I think The Black Hole is a very interesting film, to talk about and to think about, the tragedy is that it isn't as interesting a film to watch.

A summary of the story: Here be spoilers aplenty:(skip to conclusion)

On a mission to find 'habitable life'* ( *actual dialogue from the film) The crew of The Palomino travel onwards in unconvincing weightlessness until they find themselves suddenly in the dangerous vicinity of a black hole. Near the black hole is an apparantly lifeless ship which has been missing for 20 years called 'The Cygnus'. Around the ship, there is a strange anti-gravity thing going on. The Palomino gets pulled towards the black hole and suffers some damage before breaking free and landing on the mysterious Cygnus. The Cygnus suddenly comes to life.

This part is awesome, in the true meaning of the word; I'm so used to the long detail-rich shot of the big, enormous, more enormous, even-more-enormous starship —that it is very cool indeed to see a huge Gothic Spaceship unlike anything before or since — and not only interesting and different and cool — but exactly what it should be for the sake of the story. When the Cygnus lights up it transforms from a strange, spiky and cathedral-like black silhouette into this... thing. It looks less like a star destroyer and more like the Crystal Palace, or the Eiffel Tower. It looks like a proper Jules Verne vision. Entirely impractical for realistic space-travel, I suppose, but exactly where a mad and enigmatic genius should live, as creepy as it is beautiful. I really fucking love the ship.

Needless to say, this is the spookiest and the best part of the film for me.

They enter Castle Dracula, sorry, they come on board the Cygnus and the master is nowhere to be seen, but his automated systems destroy their guns before inviting them to take a theme park ride along the length of the ship in a transparent tube to the main bit. The matte effects for this journey are exactly as lame as the original sight of the ship was impressive and they all but obliterate the memory of how good it was.

 Then we find ourselves at the nerve centre, and again somebody has designed something impressive. The ships 'bridge' is as colourful and as busy and as elaborate as the rose-window of a Gothic cathedral. Placed in front of it are robotic, faceless medieval monk-type drones in billowing capes.

Unfortunately, the bottom of the screen, featuring the crew, doesn't properly match up with the top, but still, it is quite good. It's a great vision. Imagine something like Umberto Eco's The Name of The Rose in space! ( Well you'll have to imagine it because The Black Hole doesn't provide it ) . Next the crew meet Maximilian, a robot so sinister that there was clearly no other design brief for it's creator other than "create something sinister", ( but one could say the same of Darth Vader's respirator/nuns habit combo so lets let that pass) .

Just when everybody's about as freaked out as they could be,  Reinhardt pops up from nowhere in that style that great villains are so fond of   ( like Lord Summerisle in The Wicker-man —  I loved it then and I loved it now). Unfortunately Ernest Borgnine makes a pithy remark about dramatic entrances which ruins the effect and makes me hate both him and the writers who put that unnecessary dreck in his mouth. Speaking of dreck, there's more to come.

The expository dialogue is painful to witness, and boils down to Reinhardt saying he's been alone for the past 20 years, because 20 years ago the ship was damaged, he sent the crew back to Earth (they never made it) but he stayed with the 'sinking' vessel and then, overtime he fixed his ship with the 'power of genius' and built a vast crew of robots and the coolest ship ever out of the wreckage while he was at it.

'Cause he's a geniuz.

He has Maximilian guide two of the crew to repair storage while he gives a guided tour to others , Borgnine (who is supposed to be a journalist) goes snooping for a story and tries to interview one of the monk-robots who just hobbles awkwardly away from his questions.

At the storage centre we meet B.O.B. ; an earlier, quainter, more red-neck model of the V.I.N.CENT. ( V.I.N.CENT. is voiced by Roddy Mc Dowell and spends a lot of time quoting the writings of the great Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero: B.O.B is a battered old  Robot made in Houston and voiced by Slim Pickens the red-neck henchman of Heldey La Marr in Blazing Saddles and Stetson-waving missile rider from Dr Strangeglove. At no time does B.O.B tell V.I.N.CENT. :

 "Gee Boss, you put words together purdier than a twenty-dollar whore!"

But I was half-expecting it.

One of the two men, who comprise the repair crew, also slips away for a snoop around the ship, he finds the vast and uninhabited crews quarters with unifroms hanging up in the wardrobes and then he witnesses the cybermonks having a creepy funeral-type ceremony and shooting a coffin out into space.

Reinhardt invites everybody to dinner that evening.

Rather than attend dinner, the robots are sent off to while away the time in a shooting gallery where they wont bother the grown-ups.
The dinner is served in an Edwardian dining room, replete with cut-glass chandeliers, silver candelabras and a magnificent gilt-edged oil painting of the Cygnus. Dr Reinhardt shocks his guests ( but not the audience ) when he declares that it is his intention to enter the black hole.

Back at the shooting gallery, the leader of the sentry robots cheats and it becomes obvious that B.O.B. has been a long-term victim of bullying by the sentries, V.I.N.CENT sticks up for floating robots with cute eyes everywhere by beating the leader of the sentries ( Captain S.T.A.R.) : whuppin' his ass at a game of shoot-'em-up and then inadvertently killing him.

 This is supposed to be funny,you can tell because because S.T.A.R angrily waves his fists and smoke comes out of his ears before he collapses in a heap of unrealistic animated sparks.

Emboldened by this victory, B.O.B. reveals to V.I.N.CENT. that the silent cybermonks are not actually robots but in fact the original crew, who have been lobotomised into zombies by the good Dr Reinhardt to  prevent mutiny. Either for regular lobotomy top-ups, or some other reason, the humanoids are placed in one of three rotating coffin things and lasers are fired at their brains. B.O.B. shows V.I.N.CENT. this procedure taking place to back up his story.

Doctor Reinhardt
abruptly leaves the dinner party upon the return of a probe ship that he has sent as far as the event horizon of the black hole. His absence gives the guests the opportunity to air their collective hunch that he's a lunatic, although Anthony Perkins from Psycho reckons he's just a little eccentric ( I cant help thinking that, in comparison to Norman Bates, he is just a little eccentric ).

V.I.N.CENT sends an E.S.P. message alert asking the crew to meet with him in the Palomino, the captain, the other guy and Ernest Borgnine leave and only Anthony Perkins and Kate remain. Reinhardt returns from his probe and begins to talk Anthony Perkins into joining him on the trip inside the black hole.

In an astonishingly clumsy piece of writing, right in the middle of his pitch he just stops all persuasion and conversation and begins mumbling scientific formula to himself, this provides the opportunity for Kate to receive the ESP message ('that the cyber-monks are people') and to relay it to Perkins without Reinhardt noticing.
Reinhardt just as suddenly comes back to life again and walks menacingly towards her her, ignoring Perkins.

Anthony Perkins removes the silver dome from the front of one of the humanoid's heads and discovers that the crew are indeed human zombies. He tries to escape with Kate, but the lift doors close too soon. The sinister Maximilian advances on them. Perkins tries to hold him back with a book but the robot's rotating blades rip it into confetti, and then do the same to his insides. We dont see it happen, we just see his face as it happens, which is kinda worse.

Dr Reinhardt calls his robot off, and then out of nowhere, he whispers the intriguing words: "protect me from Maximilian" to Kate. The woman's not interested in protecting him so he sends her off to the hospital with his sentry robots to have her brain fried. Genius that he is, he forgets that she can contact the Palomino crew with her magic ESP. Or maybe he believes that wrapping her head in tinfoil prevents the ESP from working because that's what they put her in before lying her down in the Lobototron 9000 ™.

She is of course rescued, in the nick of time in a very odd action scene where the action music is so repetitive, that it seems looped or out of synch or something.
The 'thought ray' that does the lobotomising is on Kate for a few seconds but doesn't leave her with any ill-effects. Conversely, the same ray causes a Sentry Robot's head to explode instantly. Which is handy.

Out in the impressive walkway we have a hum-drum shoot-out between our heroes and the forces of darkness, which involves an eccentric musical score again and sniping from behind barrels in a B-Western style.

They become pinned down and the others leave the ship to help them, worried that he might get shot, Ernest Borgnine fakes a broken leg and scurries back to the Palomino.
With a yeehaw! the last of the sentries are dispensed with, and everyone heads to the ship.

In an act of complete wilful bastardry, Ernest Borgnine decides to leave everybody behind and operate The Palomino back to earth himself. As soon as he takes off, Reinhardt shoots the craft, causing it to spin out of control and smash into the Cygnus, Borgnine dies in a ball of flame.

Then the Cygnus suddenly finds itself in a meteor shower of glowing red meteor bubbles that seem more like blood corpuscles or something in a lava lamp than giant pieces of rock. They tumble towards the Cygnus like the rose petals in American Beauty before toppling towers and ripping into the fragile structure.

For no reason in particular, ( other than to have something cool happen ) the only completely spherical meteor crashes through the ship and rolls it's way down one of the vast mid-sections like a giant red glowing bowling ball in a gutter. It trundles right towards the bridge that our heroes are trying to cross smashing it just as they complete their passage. It is ridiculous, it is unnecessary but it is a singularly spectacular pre-CGI effect and really well done.

In what is obviously the Black Hole style of doing things, the great rolling meteor scene is immediately followed by something lame, a fight scene in the gardens where a hole punctured in the roof causes some more half-assed 'floating' done with wires and truly terrible weather effects.

Meanwhile,  like the empirical scientist and genius that he is, Reinhardt reasons that his flimsy glass-house ship that has just had the Palomino crash into it, and then been been strafed by enormous meteors ripping through the hull; - is at last ready and ship-shape to begin it's journey into a black hole.


Astonishingly, the ship doesn't seem up to it and we are informed, via creaking noises and a wobbly walkway, that the Cygnus is experiencing 'structural overload'.
The spindly greenhouse cannae take it captain!
An enormous flat-screen telly, that for some reason we haven't seen before, crashes down on Dr Reinhardt, trapping him. He calls to Maximilian for help but the robot ignores him and goes to meet the Palomino crew.

Maximilian blasts B.O.B. and has a showdown of sorts with V.I.N.CENT. where V.I.N.CENT. beats him by driving some sort of drill into his mid-section,  ( effectively doing unto him what he did to Anthony Perkins). Eviscerated of his electronic innards, Maximilian floats up into the red mist with a few badly animated sparks and is gone. Dr Reinhardt continues to scream. B.O.B. dies and V.I.N.CENT. leaves him.

Go Disney!

Then...yadda yadda yadda...a crew member floats up into the mist but is rescued.
The Cygnus begins to break apart like a giant interstellar Titanic going down.
The crew escape into the probe ship but find, once they are inside, that they cannot control it: it has been pre-programmed to head straight for the black hole.

As they enter the black hole the set and the actors start to rotate independently at different speeds. Half-heard echoes of each of the crews thoughts ( including V.I.N.CENT.'s) bounce around, and the whole experience is a mix between  the scary tunnel in Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory. and the ending of  2001, and the the Dude appears.


More accurately,  Dr Reinhardt is suddenly depicted spinning through red mist with very long hair and a beard looking a lot like 'The Dude' on a bad trip , then he is confronted by the Maximilian robot. The last we see of him he seems to be trapped inside the shell of Maximilian on a mountain top in a version of hell populated by the humanoid Monk/Zombies, only here they have skulls for faces...

Sweet dreams children.

The Palomino crew, who were on Santa's other list, follow an angel through a series of lancet arches made of glass and emerge unscathed on the other side of the black hole. The last we see of them, they are heading towards a planet that we can only hope contains the ' habitable life' that they've been looking for all along.

The End.


 A black hole is by definition the darkest thing in the universe, and while not quite as dark as the darkest thing in the universe,-Disney's The Black Hole  is still surprisingly dark: the creepy Cygnus, the zombie crew, the silent space-funeral, the satanic monster robot who clearly ( albeit bloodlessly) disembowels one of the main characters , the death of plucky robot B.O.B. and the mind-fuck ending ( with Reinhardt trapped in the pit of Hades ) all add up to a film that is really a universe away from the adventure-serial tone of Starwars.

Rather than being a total rip-off of Starwars, The Black Hole probably owes more of its inspiration to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea; with  Reinhardt as a bat-shit Captain Nemo* *(or Ahab: see 'comments') who has completely gone over to the dark-side. It feels like it's trying to be a Gothic version of that tale, with a little Starwars-type adventure thrown in, before opting for a 2001 ending. It didn't work then and it doesn't really work now either, but it was worth watching again if only to remind myself what a strange fillum it is.

I only discovered, when researching this blog, that there's actually a remake in the pipeline, and from the sounds of things they're going for a more hard sci-fi reboot that focuses on the 2001-ish element of the original, while retaining Maximilian and the awesome design of the Cygnus.

 I'm not sure how you can keep that ship and still strive for realism, but what the hey.

Personally, I regard the majority of remakes as entirely unnecessary, but with this, ( as with the up-coming Judge Dredd ), there is everything required to justify a re-make: i.e. some visually inspirational source material and enormous scope for improvement on the original.


  1. Thats twice now, twice that i have seen the Nemo comparison, both on here and on another fine blog on the subject of The Black Hole.

    I'm not going to dismiss the Nemo thing out of hand, i have only scanty recollections of the movie and have never read the book, but i'd like to venture another comparison, another captain, and another book i have not read, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick 'The Great White Whale'.

    I'm not saying its a blow for blowhole direct adaption but theres enough correlations between Moby Dick and The Black Hole to get me thinking that it must have played a part in the proceedings.

  2. Ahab v Nemo.
    They are indeed a great pair of fictional, driven and crazed Captains to compare against the captain of the ghostly Cygnus. I suppose what makes Rheinhardt less Ahabby' (Ahabesque?) and more 'Nemoical' to me is their (largely) self-created amazing ships, their shared interest in science and their use of those ships and that science to facilitate their love of lurking:

    "In it is supreme tranquillity. The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! sir, live--live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!"

    Ahab is so synonymous with revenge for me, that, of the two, Nemo's by far the better fit, ( although with his zombie crew, Rheinhardt is a bat-shit dark-side version of him ). Ahab is alike in madness to Rheinhardt,- but Rheinhardt seeks freedom from society and not vengance.

  3. Oho sir, i do not mean to suggest that you must choose between those dashing captains, more likely theres a conflation of the two in Rheinhardt.

    I'll give a brief scurry as to my reasoning pro-Ahab that "grand, ungodly, godlike man,"...

    The intense fascination on a natural phenomenon, Black Hole/White Whale, which may also present religious overtures.

    "Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?"

    There is also the presence of a dark-half embodied as an other, Rheinhardt/Maximillian - Ahab/Fedallah 'an inscrutable figure with a sinister influence over Ahab', and their twinned deaths both towed down into the depths by the whale.

    Ahab's ship, the Peqoud, is manned by a crew who, save for one, Starbuck, are unswerving in their loyalty to their captain. An interesting line from Ahab to Starbuck 'All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.' Echoes of those mirror-masks worn by the Cygnus crew?

    The fate of the Pequod itself, "which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it." Apparently it causes a whirlpool when it sinks dragging down boats and sailors.

    And heres Ahab on about that Whale

    'If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines.'

    Not simply vengence but also escape not just from society but maybe also from fate?

  4. Brilliantly put! Let us call Rheinhardt an amalgam then, ( for though a man who lobotomises his crew for mutiny does seem a tad less charismatic than one who inspires, and inspires the religiously blind worship demonstrated by the Peaquod crew for their Captain, - still, the result is the same ).You make some excellent points, and Melville makes some excellent reading.

  5. Thanks you muchly, for the consideration and for the initial review.

    The more i look at it the more interesting a movie it becomes,the relation of humans and robots/cyborgs is particularly intriguing.

    There does not seem to be a definite line drawn between human and robot, in fact, there seems to be a willful blurring of the differences, in a way, there could be a case made for the robots in the film being animated receptacles of the soul/spirit/person,as if future technology has found ways of encrypting soul and machine, or, in the case of the crew of the cygnus, voiding the soul from the body while still keeping it animate.

    This might make some sense of the seeming mistake at the start, i mean, if we take seriously the idea that there might be a developing technology of soul transference/digital possession then a search for 'habitable life'is not such a faux pas in they may be looking for biological vessels so that may re-house a soul instead of the artificial ones, Vincent, Bob, Maximillian, the zombie crew, that they have at present.

    Well, given that none of this seems explicit it may just be some fanciful speculation on my part.

  6. This is an interesting interpretation of the 'habitable life' comment alright and there are aspects of the film that do invite fanciful speculation along these lines: not only do we 'hear' Vincent's thoughts, but he does state a dislike for the company of robots.


  7. Very interesting review. Way harsh though! I had to pester my father for WEEKS to get him to bring me to see TBH, in the Astor cinema. This tells you a number of things:

    1) Yes, there was a time when even a second rate film could play in the same cinema for WEEKS at a time.
    2) My father hates going to the cinema. He complained bitterly for days afterward to anyone that would listen about the fact that the SHORT film before the main film about surfing was much better than the "feature". He complained in precisely the same way THE OTHER time (yes, the OTHER time) he took me to the cinema, which was to see Star Wars. I'm not counting 'The Cat From Outer Space' double bill with 'Herbie Goes Bananas' debacle in the Metropole.
    2.1) The fact that going to the cinema was an event you could talk about for days afterwards tells you a lot about the state of the entertainment to be had in, as they say on the shite radio stations ('you'll have to be more specific') "Eye-yurhr-lahnd" then.
    3) This was even from BEFORE the Astor was known for dodgy x-rated films.
    4) I loved TBH long before I saw anything of it apart from tiny clips on programs like 'Clapperboard'.

    Minor geeky point: the name of the ship, Cygnus, is so called because the first ever observationally suspected black hole is called Cygnus X1. As for the film the Ahab thing is way off base IMHO. It’s got to be based on an unholy miscegenation of the Jules Verne notions of "20k Leagues Under the Sea", AND, the lesser known "Master of the World". Yes, it’s a kid’s film but, being a kid, I couldn't get enough of it. Yes, it's laughable now, but in the same way that your old Teddy or Action Men, or Steve Austin dolls are "laughable". Robots, spaceships, lasers, black holes!, murder, mayhem etc, what more could you ask for?

    I think you're right to highlight the darker gothic elements, but I think that may have been Disney trying to build in something for adults into the storyline - consciously trying to ape the (extremely hidden, "Hero With a Thousand Faces" type) depth that emerges from Star Wars, but failing. The special effects have that disappointing cartoon Disney flavor, nothing like the innovation of ILM in Star Wars. But that's the point - Disney were hopping on a band wagon, having to pump out this product, in order to be seen to be playing in that market for their shareholders.

    As you point out it made money, but it’s poor performance relative to Star Wars may have inspired the idea (eventually) of Touchstone Pictures (wholly owned by Disney, but not with the Disney trademark). That allows them to make adult themed/violent/horror/proper sci fi, without impinging on cuddly Disney brands. I say that because if it HAD been made 10 years later by Touchstone, they may have been able to go much further with the gothic angle than the Disney brand ever could have, and hence made a much more interesting film.

    Who's to say they wouldn't have ended up at the doorstep of something like (the utterly execrable) "Event Horizon", which may owe at least SOMETHING to the TBH, no?

    As a film, TBH is indelibly printed in my memory - especially Perkins' "floba-loba" gurgling demise at Max's rotors.

    And as well - you forgot to mention the short lived Black Hole ice pop, and the utterly ludicrous notion of a black hole looking like a swirling bath of dandruff flecked molasses draining down a plughole.

    And as for TBH cards - I recall a certain Mr. M being more than miserly with any cards that so much as contained a circuit of robot (Bob, Vincent and Maximilian in that order), thus stifling the ability of the true collector/connoisseur to enrich his completeness as a human being in the struggle towards card-set fulfillment. Thanks for that!

    I still haven't gotten number 89 or whatever the last one is, so if anyone wants to donate it to my otherwise complete collection, feel free.


  8. Harsh? or simply less nostalgic? I could hardly remember it before the recent re-watch and I'd be lying if I said it holds up well on the entertainment front.

    Still,— it is definitely an interesting { post-Walt's death/ pre-Touchstone's birth } Disney flick,— definitely in terms of tone.

    The actual swirly Black Hole's depiction may have shown scant regard for the actual physical reality but I thought it was pretty cool, and your description,

    "a swirling bath of dandruff flecked molasses draining down a plughole"

    isn't a million miles off.

    It was the first effect created for the film and it was made by forming a whirlpool in a round Plexiglas water tank, into which 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’s effects man Peter Ellenshaw, ( who had been coaxed out of retirement), poured various coloured pigments. The vortex was then backlit, photographed with a super-fast film stock, and finally slowed down before being inserted into blue screen sequences*, so not a million miles off.
    *That info from David Hughes, Empire magazine.

    On the subject of Mr M's card-related-miserliness there is can be no defence, and,
    as was once was true of bubble-gum cards depicting robots: I won't be offering you one.

  9. Awwwwwwwww! The last one doesn't even HAVE a robot in it!!! I'll give you 5 limping humanoids and 6 Kate mulgrews for it!!